This interview is part of our Moving Forward Blog Series, where we ask major brands how they’re adapting to changing consumer expectations from a loyalty perspective post-pandemic.
Red Lion Hotels Corporation is an American hospitality corporation that engages in the franchising, management, and ownership of upscale, mid-scale, and economy hotels.
RLH Corp. focuses on the franchising of eight brands at 1,000+ properties across North America. The brands include Hotel RL, Red Lion Hotels, Red Lion Inn & Suites, Signature and Signature Inn, GuestHouse, Americas Best Value Inn, Canadas Best Value Inn, and Knights Inn.
We caught up with Chris Trick, Senior Vice President, Chief Marketing Officer, RLH Corp., and here’s what he had to say about:
- How new consumer behavior has impacted the hospitality industry
- Company priorities since the pandemic began a year ago
- The importance of flexibility to instill trust in your customers
- The evolution of the company’s loyalty program, Hello Rewards
Jim Tierney: Consumers have found new behaviors during the pandemic and there has been a seismic shift toward ecommerce. How do you think these new behaviors will impact RLHC now and as it emerges from the pandemic?
Chris Trick: The runway to book vacations has drastically shortened.
With so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, consumers are booking vacations for the immediate future instead of for the months following.
To attract this new consumer behavior, it is important to amplify your brand’s presence online as this has become the main means of searching for those dreaming of booking a vacation immediately.
This new behavior will subsequently cause hotels to focus on raising awareness of important promotions and attractive offerings via the website and social channels during this time – such as flexible booking options, cancellation policies, safety protocols, and more.
As they prepare to gear back up for travel, consumers are also really looking to take advantage of deals and package promotions. Flash sales and one-of-a-kind promotional deals are becoming increasingly important in travelers’ decision-making process. Same-day bookings, often directly tied to these kinds of promotions, are already on the rise.
We are also seeing consistent year-over-year increases in web engagement, and entry into the Hello Rewards program is growing as people notice the value in accumulating rewards.
To accommodate this shift, RLHC will be launching a new website this month.
The new site streamlines the booking process through all phases of the guest journey. Visitors will find a simplified means to entering our rewards program or retrieving the rewards they already have and will find simplified processes for booking or shifting reservations.
Jim: How has your company performed since last March and what customer insights have you gleaned?
Chris: When quarantine and travel restrictions began in March 2020, we turned our focus toward our franchisees, helping them keep their doors open to support the communities that they call home.
While hotels around the world were closing, RLHC prioritized supporting our franchisees in their efforts to keep their hotel doors open for essential workers and first responders, creating COVID-safe environments for these essential workers to sleep while fulfilling their professional duties. Nearly 90% of our hotels stayed open through the pandemic.
The economy travel segment is showing more resilience than other categories, and our mix of markets has allowed us to gain market share through the pandemic, leading to more buoyant recovery.
Tertiary drive-by markets are also recovering more quickly, as travelers choose road trip escapes and prioritize visits to friends and families in smaller markets.
We’re also pleased to see that many of the essential workers who stayed with us while servicing their communities during the pandemic continue to choose our brands for leisure experiences.
Jim: Listening to your customers is a top priority. How has that changed, if at all, during the pandemic?
Chris: At RLHC, we serve two types of customers: Our franchise hoteliers and their guests.
Through the pandemic, we have seen these two different audiences prioritize the same things: health and safety protocols, contactless experiences, and financial flexibility, including cancellation and refund policies, as well as extending the expiration of Hello Bucks, the loyalty currency for our loyalty program, Hello Rewards.
Our priority has been to improve our modes of communications, so we can get them the information they want quickly and directly. To directly address health and safety concerns, we developed and launched our RLH Clean program, which outlines our protocols and cleanliness practices.
This is now the most visited landing page on our website. We have also adopted best practices from various organizations across the hospitality and health safety industries. We have digitized our processes with mobile check-in and digital keys where available, modified our food and beverage services, and have enabled flexible cancellation policies.
Jim: Having loyal customers is always important for brands. As brands slowly emerge from the pandemic, what are your customer loyalty goals?
Chris: Our top goal is to ensure that guests know that we are dependable in all aspects, as recognition and service are still the foundation of the program.
To start, we want to reinforce the idea that they can depend on our properties to keep them safe and healthy – ultimately creating strong confidence in our services.
Secondly, our other loyalty goal is to demonstrate flexibility. During these unpredictable times, our customers need to know that we are here for them and can accommodate evolving circumstances around us.
One example is our introduction of more flexible cancellation policies. As we prioritize this level of trust with guests, we expect to see continued growth in our Hello Rewards program, which currently has 2.5 million Members.
Jim: How is RLHC responding to consumer behavioral changes and how can the brand leverage these changes to attain greater loyalty?
Chris: As vaccine rollout continues, we are anticipating strong summer demand as more Americans begin to plan a vacation and wanderlust is at an all-time high.
Our expectation is that health and safety will remain a high priority for travelers for the foreseeable future, and we’ll continue to allow for booking flexibility while also prioritizing the extensive health and safety mechanisms implemented during the height of the pandemic.
We anticipate that trips will be shorter and will be booked with shorter lead time; many travelers are booking same day based on compelling promotional offerings.
We are responding by rolling out lots of new deals that will drive demand and capture share.
For those enrolled or looking to enroll in our Hello Rewards program, there will be Member-only promos and flash sales that add value and reward loyal Members. This, coupled with booking flexibility, will also incentivize families to book last-minute or same-day vacations.
Jim: What do you think customer loyalty will look like in the “new” retail reality?
Chris: Guest loyalty will remain focused on the guest experience. More so than ever, it goes beyond accumulating points and saving money.
Guests need to have a quality experience that is consistent across all brands and all properties. When guests continuously have their expectations met and exceeded, they will start to recognize your brand for the experiences they have had and will grow increasingly loyal to your services.
At RLH Corporation branded hotels, guests who are Members of Hello Rewards see this with the Hello Bucks they accumulate and the Hello Perks they receive as a Member benefit for being a loyal guest.
In this new retail reality, there needs to be a balance between loyalty program offerings – both financial and experiential – and property-level service.
Jim: An attractive loyalty program can be a key differentiator for a brand. How can a loyalty program spark engagement and increased revenue as the country slowly re-opens?
Chris: Most importantly, brands need to establish recognition and personalization, along with the commodity of the currency to drive loyalty.
Guests are going to be most faithful to a brand that allows them to personalize their experience to how they see fit. It is not all about the commodity of points or savings in a promotion – that only goes so far as to incentivize behavior.
A successful loyalty program also needs to incorporate all aspects of the travel experience, which starts from the initial booking, at check-in and continuing throughout the guest’s travel experience, and extending beyond check-out to continued brand engagement.
Jim: Can you talk about Hello Rewards and how the program has evolved?
Chris: Hello Rewards is our guest recognition program designed for every type of traveler. Our program has evolved to be a streamlined process that avoids complicated points systems that only benefit very-frequent travelers.
Hello Rewards delivers meaningful value and personalization at every moment of the guest journey that allows for easy opportunities to level-up within the system and earn greater rewards faster.
As our program strengthens, Hello Rewards becomes even more cost-effective with new deals and member-only promotions every season – as well as flash sales.
As we continue to drive hotel engagement, our program focuses on recognizing and rewarding guests. We foresee that our Hello Rewards will have strong membership growth this year – evolving from the program’s current 2.5 million members.
RLH Corp. has always focused on its customers and has shown how listening to them and leveraging those insights helps retain loyalty during the pandemic.
For RLH Corp., adapting to this new consumer behavior means magnifying its brand presence online since this has become the preferred method of booking vacations.
As a result, RLH realizes the importance of raising awareness of attractive promotions and offerings via its website and social channels.
RLH officials know that the key to acquiring and retaining loyal customers is allowing them to personalize their respective experiences.
The company’s Hello Rewards program focuses on recognition that, ultimately, leads to loyalty. It targets those emotional “surprise and delight” moments that create loyalty and trust.